Magazine article The Spectator

The Serious Business of Theatre

Magazine article The Spectator

The Serious Business of Theatre

Article excerpt

Sir Peter Hall tells Mary Wakefield about the secret of good acting and his pact with Pinter

Even at 78 and from a distance, Sir Peter Hall has the look of an alpha male. There he is about 100 or so feet away, advancing towards me across the polished boards of his rehearsal room; head forward, bear-like, with the lonely charisma of a boxing champ. As he passes, the younger members of the Peter Hall Company fall back smiling, deferring. He's king here, a Lear (act one). He pauses to pat a gamine young beauty on the arm, stroke his beard, pull his plump lips into a roguish grin - then moves on to the table where his lunch and I are waiting. One small sandwich, one large pile of lettuce. The great director sits, examines first me, then his lunch, then gives both of us a look of terrible, bored disappointment.

Sir Peter Hall is a great connoisseur of life, a sensualist. He loves beautiful women, extravagant cars and fine food. He's been married four times, first to the French actress Leslie Caron and most recently to Nicola, 30 years his junior. 'Making love to a woman is the closest most men will get to being an artist, ' he says. He's owned an E-type Jag, a Rolls-Royce Phantom; he wears cashmere and dines at The Ivy. Sir Peter is not a salad and sarnie man.

Nor, at first, does he seem much like an interview man. I start with his childhood, trying to understand where his unstoppable energy comes from. How did the son of a Suffolk stationmaster end up discovering Waiting for Godot at 24, founding the RSC at 29 and directing the National Theatre at 33? What drives him? 'Well, I don't know.

I am who I am, ' he says with a shrug. What was your father like? 'A peaceful, generous man.' What was your mother like?

'Ambitious.' So are you more like her, then?

'Maybe.' He smiles, but not with his eyes.

When did you first realise you wanted to direct? 'When I was 12.'

A little later, sandwich scoffed, salad untouched, he apologises for being abrupt: 'I always slump in the breaks between rehearsal, ' he says. 'It's a real problem. When I'm directing I'm completely full of adrenaline, but afterwards I just go, "Ooooooomph", and switch off. I did it just now when I met you. It wasn't you. Don't take it personally.'

The relief! But truth is, it wasn't just the absence of adrenaline which got us off to a slow start, it was something more admirable. As this interview progresses I realise that, though he's a great grandee, CBE and knighted, he would genuinely rather talk about his actors than his past triumphs.

'A good actor? Ah, well, you cannot train or make a good actor, ' Sir Peter's eyes light up. 'You can only assist what they already have. It's that strange thing called watchability - either someone has it or they don't.' Who has it, do you think? 'Oh, Paul Scofield. He could be downstage right, in the dark and all the audience would still be watching him even though he was quite still.

It's an extraordinary magic.'

What about women, can they be magic too? 'Yes, yes. My two assistant stage managers at the Oxford Playhouse in 1953, for example.' Eh? 'One was Eileen Atkins, the other Maggie Smith, ' Hall chortles. 'They were both deeply resentful at not being on stage.' And your daughter, Rebecca, I say.

She acts the socks off Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen's latest flick. Sir Peter beams: 'Yes, she does!'

Discovering and encouraging actors is what Peter Hall does best. …

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